A Buffet of Bikes: A day at the Triumph Factory Demo Tour

Triumph knows a thing or two about comebacks. The British motorcycle manufacturer is one steeped in history, but not tied to tradition. They are well known for their historic bikes such as the Bonneville. However, after falling on hard times, they were reborn in the early ‘90s as a full-fledged modern manufacturer. Now, they offer a comprehensive line of bikes that both harken back to their past and compete with the best of the present.

Comebacks are more important than ever since the great recession. There’s an even greater effort now to draw new customers and younger riders onto a company’s bikes since the poor economy wiped out many repeat motorcycle customers. The reason for this is because many of those customers heavily financed their bike loans through their houses. I don’t think I need to tell you how that story ends after 2008. To cope, there are a few ways motorcycle companies are attempting to draw attention to their products in a continually shrinking marketplace. Some are offering new bikes at a cheaper price point. Others are making their new and existing products more visible through more aggressive marketing campaigns. However, the few and the brave are actually putting their bikes in the hands of these riders through riding events. One such company is Triumph with their Factory Demo Tour events.

Here’s how it works. First, go to the event’s website. Then, find a dealership using the tool on the site. The website will show you which dealers are holding the event and when. You can also choose which bikes you would like to ride. The best part is that it is all completely free. Don’t feel like registering beforehand? You can show up to the event as well with no prior reservation. However, the event fills up fast, so you may want to register beforehand and get there early to get the bikes you want. This specific event ran from 8a.m.-4p.m., and you can stay or go at any time. However, get there early if you are motivated to ride a specific bike.

There are some requirements to attend, but no more than what is common sense. First, you must have a valid motorcycle license. Second, you must wear the proper gear. Leave the flip-flops and shorts at home, squids. Proper gear means a DOT certified helmet, long pants, long-sleeved shirt, closed-toed shoes and motorcycle gloves. The shirt and long pants do not have to be motorcycle specific gear, but it is highly recommended. Plus, if you call ahead to the dealer you’re going to, you may be able to rent an item or two. Finally, there is no reckless riding. You ride in a group around 10-15 strong while being escorted by staff. If you get separated from the group (cough, like me, cough), there are plenty of escorts to take you through the full route and bring you back to the starting point. But is the event any fun? That’s what I set to find out when I went to Motoworks in Chicago.

I am not a morning person in the slightest, but even I was up and ready the morning of the event. I arrived at the event greeted by the best part, the Demo Tour truck they cart around with all the bikes in it. You can’t help but get excited by having a whole buffet of bikes laid out before you.

The dealer I took my ride at was Motoworks; located on the lower west side of Chicago at 1901 S Western Ave. This is their main store and offers 20,000 square feet to both sell and service motorcycles. Motoworks sells Triumph and Aprilia motorcycles, as well as Piaggio and Vespa scooters. The best part has to be the atmosphere of the place. You would never know the place is a dealer by how the staff treats you. They never come with the hard sell, but are more than helpful to answer any questions. In fact, owner John Scheff prefers to call his place a shop, instead of a dealer. If you’re in Chicago or the Chicagoland area, I highly suggest going through these guys. You can reach them through their website or at (312) 738-4269.

The first ride out was at 9 a.m. Since I arrived early, I had the pick of the litter and chose a Triumph Thruxton. The Thruxton is one of three bikes in the retro modern line, which includes the base Bonneville, the Scrambler (vintage dirt bike design). The retro modern line showcases the designs of the past with modern mechanicals. The Thruxton shares mechanicals with the other two bikes with an 865cc, 68 horsepower parallel twin-cylinder motor. The Thruxton, being styled like a café racer, is arguably the most attractive of the triplets with its single passenger bullet seat, lower handlebars, bar-end mirrors, and more aggressive riding position. Going into the day, it was the bike I was most looking forward to riding.

It is important to note that a motorcycle is very similar to a dance partner since your bike should be of similar size, skill set, and speed as you. Reason being, if you are not a perfect match, you will find yourself on the ground in a hurry and in a lot of pain. I became quickly aware of the problems of not listening to this line of thought upon starting my ride on the Thruxton. For one, the pegs were too far back for my legs. I have thicker thighs so I was not able to comfortably crouch up on the footrests. As I would find out later, this caused me to continually ride the rear brake as my right leg hunted for the rear peg. Second, the riding boot I was wearing was slightly too thick to slide between the left rear peg and the gear lever. These two slight variables had a profound effect on the experience I would have on the bike.

During the ride, since I was riding the rear brake, the bike would slow down too fast when rolling off the throttle to start to change gear. On top of that, I had to hunt for the gear lever with my left foot. The resulting lurch and lunge of me hunting for the gears and struggling to get back in position did not make for an enjoyable ride. To navigate a bike effectively, all of your physical movements must be in harmony with the bike. With the Thruxton, I was not participating in a symphony but in a musical procession of 3 year-olds pounding on buckets with sticks. My dancing partner had transformed into a wrestling partner.

Let it be known that my experience with the Thruxton is of no fault of the bike itself, but of my own physical build and equipment choice. Neither was incorrect, just wrong for the application. You can’t get mad at a pair of pants that don’t fit; you just look for a different size. For a brief moment, I did start to get the hang of it; it was a wonderful bike. I might not have been able to fit on it, but hopefully you can.

However, the true benefits of the demo event would soon show through. Even though I had fallen back from the pack, an escort guided me through the rest of the course and brought me back to the shop. I got back dreading a verbal lashing, but was greeted instead with a few tips on my next selection, and sent on my way to find the next bike to ride.

If this were a traditional test ride, it would have played out much different. On a test ride at a dealer, the focus is usually on the one product you are looking at. If I took the Thruxton for a spin on a test ride, I probably would have walked out of the dealer out of disappointment. However, on the demo ride, you can just move on to the next bike. There is no pressure to latch onto one bike because a salesman isn’t breathing down your neck. At the demo event, you can truly focus on the bike itself.

After the Thruxton, I changed course and decided to ride a different bike than I originally planned. My new choice was the Scrambler, another bike out of the retro modern line. One advantage Triumph really shows during times like this is their full line of bikes. Instead of being tied to sportbikes or cruisers, they offer both, and everything in between such as touring bikes, adventure bikes, and the retro modern line. Because of this, if something doesn’t fit your tastes or riding style, Triumph has other bikes that will.

The Scrambler is mechanically identical to the Thruxton – same engine, transmission, brakes and frame. However, the ergonomics and styling are tweaked to fit the vintage dirt bike theme. These changes include the handlebars being raised, the suspension being raised and retuned for a softer ride, knobbier tires being fitted, the exhaust changed to a mid-pipe design, and the foot controls being brought forward.

On paper, these changes look negligible. However, in real life, it makes a universe of difference. Unlike the Thruxton, you sit more upright, helping you look farther ahead. Also, with the gear lever and rear brake brought forward, you don’t need to hunt for them as much since they are located right under your feet instead of behind them.

After my performance on the Thruxton, I was still a little nervous of a repeat. However, on the road with the Scrambler, I immediately felt more at ease and in control because of the ergonomics and different ride position. Now able to operate the essential functions of the bike properly, I could really enjoy the bike. One part of the bike I could take in was the sound of the optional Arrow exhaust. The sound is aggressively smooth – loud and throaty enough to be heard, but not obnoxious. Also, the raised and softened suspension was much better suited for the potted Chicago roads. The bike became more of an extension of me instead of a hindrance. The 9-mile journey that seemed to take forever on the Thruxton was done in a flash on the Scrambler.

The most shocking point to remember is that the Scrambler and Thruxton are nearly identical. All it took was a couple inches here and there on the controls, and some new parts, to create a whole new bike and experience.

The best part is, if it were not for the Demo Day, I wouldn’t have even given a second thought to the Scrambler. Compared to the stock Bonneville and Thruxton, I found it too clunky and aggressive. In person, however, the bike looks stronger and more fitting for the urban environment. I also thought I would hate the more upright riding position, but I was proven wrong on that count as well.

That is the point of the Demo Day, changing opinions about Triumph and its motorcycles for those both familiar and unfamiliar with the brand. Combine the helpful, relaxed atmosphere, with a bevy of motorcycle choices, and you will definitely find something that suits your taste and style. It also goes to show that putting product in the hands of customers goes farther than any convoluted marketing campaign about the “lifestyle” of the brand or motorcycles in general.


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